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Food from genetically engineered crops. Should we worry?. Maarten J. Chrispeels. Genetic change resulting from crop domestication took 10,000 years. Teosinte (top) and corn or maize (bottom). The March of Genetic Technology.

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Genetic change resulting from crop domestication took 10,000 years.

Teosinte (top) and corn or maize (bottom)

the march of genetic technology

The March of Genetic Technology

1860 Mendel:making crosses, introducing genes1920 Discovery of hybrid vigor1950 Inducing mutations1960 Tissue culture and embryo rescue1980 Plant transformation and GMOs2000 Genomics


Crop improvement has allowed food production to keep up with

phenomenal population growth for the past 100 years.


The scientific basis of all crop improvement is the identification of the genes that encode certain phenotypic characteristics.Those genes can now be transferred more easily (via marker assisted breeding - no GM) or directly (through genetic engineering - GM)

molecular agriculture makes new gene combinations possible
Molecular agriculture makes new gene combinations possible

Peas (on the left) that make a genetically engineered bean protein are insect-resistant and do not need to be sprayed with pesticides.

what are people s concerns
What are people’s concerns
  • Is this food safe?
  • Should food be labeled?
  • Are there adverse environmental effects?
  • Patenting of seeds
  • Discrimination against the poor
  • Who benefits?

All of these concerns apply to food and agriculture in general


These concerns are generally true for all innovations. Governments create policies based on the following principles:

Promote the general welfare

Maintain people’s rights (individuals, groups, corporations)

Ensure justice: burdens and benefits must be fairly shared


Worldwide, 40 % of our food production depends on irrigation. Depletion of aquifers is occurring at twice the re-charge rate. Salinization is a major consequence of irrigation

agriculture has narrowed the gene pool and caused a loss of biodiversity
Agriculture has narrowed the gene pool and caused a loss of biodiversity

Wild Progenitors and Relatives

Land Races

Elite Lines


Environmental Hazards from Pesticides

  • Substantial health impacts on workers
  • Pollution of natural ecosystems/ waterways
  • Loss of insect biodiversity in agroecosystems
  • Creation of secondary pests
  • Creation of insect races resistant to pesticides

Genetics is always better than chemicals:

GM Cotton with a Bacillus thuringiensis Cry gene is resistant

to Cotton Bollworm. Cry encodes an insecticidal protein


Reduced Pesticide Use with Insect-Protected Cotton

Insect Control Ledger for 2000: Bollgard® Cotton on Five Million Acres




Financial Benefit





  • Transports and stores 416,000 fewer gallons of insecticide
  • Conserves 604,000 gallons of fuel oil
  • Applies 1.04 million fewer pounds of insecticide in 2.5 fewer applications per acre
  • Disposes of 416,000 fewer insecticide containers
  • Saves 41,250 10-hour farm work days
  • Eliminates 2,150 10-hour days of aerial application
  • Conserves 2.41 million gallons of fuel and 93.7 million gallons of water
  • Accrues $168 million in economic benefits from lower production costs and increased cotton yield
  • Produces fiber equivalent to that found in all consumer products derived from cotton
  • Saves 3.46 million pounds of raw material
  • Conserves 1.48 million gallons of fuel oil
  • Eliminates 2.16 million pounds of industrial waste
  • Reduces pesticide exposure risk
  • Preserves beneficial insect populations
  • Creates wildlife benefits
  • Gives cotton producers more time for family and community activities
  • Gives cotton producers peace of mind

Dr. Roger Leonard, LSU Agricultural Center Dr. Ronald Smith, Auburn University

Bollgard® is a registered trademark of Monsanto Company© 2001 Monsanto Company


Some GM crops have the potential to mitigate the environmental impact of agriculture: less pesticide, less dust, more biodegradable herbicides

“Roundup” tolerant soybeans can be

Planted with no-till procedures,

which eliminate plowing (dust),

Save water and use a biodegradable


hmm i wonder if there could be gene flow
Hmm… I wonder if there could be gene flow?

Gene flow occurs when crops cross with wild relatives growing

in relative close proximity to the fields.

Gene flow requires sexual compatibility

Gene persistence requires an evolutionary advantage for the new trait


What are the main food issues in the US?The # 1 safety issue is bacteria (6000 deaths per yr.)The # 1 health issues are fat, sugar and salt

are gm foods safe and nutritious
Are GM foods safe and nutritious?
  • All GM foods have been extensively tested and they are as safe as other foods in the market place.
  • GM crops can be made into convenience and “junk” food just like organic crops and other crops!
  • Nutrition depends on the food, not the method of crop breeding

A GM soybean line, developed as a collaboration between the USDA and DuPont, is hypoallergenic in humans.

The approach is to down regulate the expression of the gene encoding the major allergenic protein (antisense)

labels are not neutral
Labels are not neutral!

Produced by




Truthful labels can be misleading or meaningless

There are no GM apples anywhere!

Is food labeled this way


how to label

How to Label?

Conventionally grown


Pesticides, twice a week Pesticide free

should foods from gm crops be labeled perhaps
Should foods from GM crops be labeled? Perhaps!

The US takes the view that if

foods are “substantially equivalent”,

the method of producing them

need not be on the label.

Farmers use a variety of techniques, and keeping production streams separate “from plow to plate” costs money. Such separation is called “identity preservation”. Who should pay for this?


Voluntary labeling works in the US for Kosher and Organic foods.

Europe requires that all food that has any ingredient that is

more than 1% GM be labeled as “GM containing”.

so what s the bottom line

So, what’s the bottom line?

GM foods are as safe and there is promise for more nutritious food.

For some crops, environmental impacts are similar or less than conventional agriculture.

GM is an important tool for the plant breeder

GM technology can solve problems that can’t be solved in other ways at present.

The benefits will be spread between biotech companies, farmers and consumers.


GM or no GM is a false issue. Sustainability is the real issue.

Through science and through ethics we have come to the realization that we are bound by the laws of Nature. We must obey those laws to make agriculture (and civilization) sustainable.

Our agricultural practices must reflect our new awareness that many practices threaten sustainability. Food production must be equitable and just, and sustainable, for all the peoples of the Earth.